Anxiety powers change, drives curiosity and is essential for development…


A Game Changing Idea for teachers: We are all – including your pupils – hardwired to learn…the epistemophillic instinct’.

Melanie Klein Child Psychologist, Melanie Klein wrote that children, from the moment they are born are hardwired to learn.  She called this the ‘epistemophillic instinct’.  She said that learning is the same as feeding, we are driven to do it, it is part of our survival mechanism and it’s a mechanism that lasts all of our lives.

The link between learning and survival

Klein pointed out that the three basic anxieties a baby has are anxieties about:

  • ·being held (feeling safe/protected)
  • ·being warm
  • being fed

She went further to say that the ideal feeding environment is one where the baby feels both ‘warm’ and ‘safe/held’.

Winnicott and later Bowlby looked at how this environment does not have to be totally ideal but that it had to be ‘good enough’ for the baby to form an ‘attachment’ to the ‘good object’ – its “feeder” or “carer”.

Freud, Klein, Bion, Winnicott and Bowlby all agree that anxiety is not got rid of during the feeding process but is what Bion called “contained”.   The key point is that this anxiety needs to be contained long enough for the baby to take in/consume ‘food’ that is nourishing.psychoanalysts

If children are hardwired to learn, why am I struggling to teach them?

You may be ahead of me but if Klein is right and we are always trying to learn and if she is to be believed that the three drives that stay with us all our lives are to be fed, warm and be safe then what does it mean for us as teachers when we think of the classroom environment we want to create for our learners?

We – the teacher – are the carer/parent figure in the mind of the pupil…

If we are in any doubt, in the Kleinian model, we, the teachers, whatever gender we are gifted with, are the ‘carer’ or ‘mother’ and the children in our care are the ‘babies’.  Expressions of anxiety can be understood as expressions of them not getting any one or combination of their three fundamental survival needs.

Food = The Lesson

For the sake of clarity, in the Kleinian model, we can substitute ‘food’ for the lesson, the food that you are giving them is useful for their growth.

Warmth = They will want to be there if you want to be there

The warmth of course is both physical warmth of the room but also the warmth of your greeting or your teaching style or your obvious desire for them to do well or your willingness to enjoy their company or see them as individuals.

Being Held = clear boundaries for everyone

The ‘being held’ is all about their safety, about boundaries, about making sure they feel that there are rules and that those rules are there to serve them.

If we can keep this simple idea in mind then every other classroom management tactic is not just part of a school rule or a procedure that you follow it becomes fundamentally connected to the survival instinct, an instinct that goes beyond your classroom, your school and your last Ofsted inspection.  It becomes about what it means to be a human and everyone already instinctively, fundamentally understands it.

Simple and Seismic

This approach to classroom management is both simple and complex.  The edicts are straightforward but the application of them requires a balance of holding the line and fluidity, of seeing the bigger picture – we are all here to learn – and being in the moment – I sense that this task is too much for X, I need to do something or offer support.

It is about being present and thinking on your feet, it requires you to be open and sensitive to your needs and the needs of those in front of you but not overwhelmed by those needs.

Bion called an environment like this a ‘contained’ environment. No one is pretending, everyone is present and awake and ready to learn.

Do Now – Journal Task:  What are they asking for? What are you asking for?

Think about a class that you teach.  Think about a pupil or some of the pupils that are in that class, maybe ones that are challenging. Think about Klein and the epistemophillic instinct and ask yourself “What are they asking for?”.

Think about your needs also. What do you need in school? What do you need more of with that class or any other? Your CPD needs are your ‘food’ in a way, you might need to share your concerns with others, that’s a way of feeling held and warm. You might want to look back at some good results you’ve achieved with a pupil or a class or think of a moment in a classroom that only a teacher would know – something funny – connect with why you teach, try to feel the warmth of it.

You’re only human.

That’s probably why you’re such a good teacher.

PDF session 2 2013

Further Reading:  The Learning Relationship: Psychoanalytic Thinking in Education by Biddy Youell

Please make a comment either about this article or your own experience. Feel free to contact me, ask questions or make suggestions.  This is a resource for teachers…

Next: Lesson Making Sense of Emotions

An unwanted projection can feel like a bullet

An unwanted emotion can feel like a bullet


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